Alternate Win Conditions… AKA Backup Plans

Over the last couple of Basic Level Up Moments we have talked about deck building and a process that helps focus and optimize your deck. A deck is only as effective as it is allowed to be by how it is built. It is important to learn these steps in deck building because it will improve your game. One thing that is often overlooked is what happens to my deck if I am denied accomplishing my game plan or goal? For example Meren of Clan Nel Toth wants to recur things from the graveyard. What happens if someone plays a Tormod’s Crypt or a Grafdigger’s Cage? Meren’s ability to be an effective commander and the graveyard shenanigans are greatly reduced. How do you win?

An Example From Real Life

This reminds me of a time I was playing commander versus a Prossh, Skyraider of Kher Deck. It was down to me and the Prossh player. I was playing a Thrasios, Triton Hero good stuff deck. The Prossh player had me beat as I had no creature answer to flying. He felt it was just a number of turns until he beat me. I was able to play an Isochron Scepter and imprinted Reclaim on it before he ever attacked me. When he finally did swing at me I played my Fog and then activated the scepter on his end step to put Fog on top of my deck. Thrasios allowed me to continue to draw cards and I was able to hold the Prossh player at bay. Until I could win the game. Prossh needed a backup plan.

To be fair the Prossh deck I was playing did have a backup plan. I contained a several very large burn spells and he did not draw into them. The antidote does illustrate what can happen to a deck that does not build alternate win conditions into their deck. The lesson is still the same though. Commander has a very large pool of cards to choose from and a lot of design space. According to while Fog is in the top 10 for instants in green decks. It still only sees play in two percent of green decks  when you face off in commander. It is difficult to know just what exact disruption cards you will face and how to best combat it.

The Theory

When you build your commander deck it is important in the process you ask yourself “What will I do if an opponent can prevent me from achieving my goal to win?” You should always have an answer to this question. This gives your deck flexibility in very adverse circumstances and will increase your chances to win the game. Understand, it may increase your chances to win by just a couple of percentage points because you still have to be able to draw and play the card. Still, as a general concept in a situation where you are shut down from winning having a five percent chance to win is better than having no chance at all and hoping another player at the table will affect the board and gives you a chance to take back the game.

I remember being in a room during a commander league where Someone played Iona, Shield of Emeria and shut down a mono black deck. The pod had several Spikes in it because they were competing for points to win the league. The players at the table left the Pete, the mono black deck alone. They did not take him out of the game. My friend, Nate, who was the owner of Iona explained why he left the deck to sit around. “The mono black deck was not a threat until Iona was dealt with so instead he focused on other players who could take him out”. Iona is now banned. There can be many similar scenarios to this one that will lock  you out of your goals. Don’t let this be you by not packing an alternate win condition in your deck.   

Three Alternate Win Types

Alternate win conditions usually win by one of three different ways. The first is the ability to go infinite. When you can produce infinite turns or generate infinite mana and sink it into drawing cards. Often winning becomes an inevitability before you have to give up your turn and your opponents can answer your threats. You may not have what is needed to win the game on the board. With infinite turns or card draw you can draw into the winning cards you need. This answers what is keeping you from winning or just win the game outright. It may take you twenty minutes to draw and get there but it will happen. In these situations, oftentimes once you can demonstrate the infinite combination,  the remaining players will concede you win the game and will move onto the next game. 

The second way is a card or two that wins along the other half of the combat-direct damage axis. There are some corner cases where your commander can be shut down and ruin a commander damage strategy. It is far more likely for a well built commander deck to be able to remove the offending card in it’s initial design. This means the more troublesome situations is when someone can pillow fort strong enough to prevent death by combat. If you win by large amounts of direct damage and an opponent can shut that direct damage down and disrupt the synergy of your cards you need to have some cards that can be used in a pinch to damage an opponent to get them out of the game or just win the game outright.

The Sanguine BondExquisite Blood combo is probably one of the most notable winning combinations of cards. If you have a combat strategy and are in black. then including these two cards is not a bad idea for when you get shut down. Yes, it is when you get shut down. No deck can always have an answer to every card that can disrupt your deck. No deck is assured that you have the answer to play or that can fetch it. 

The third way is by playing cards to just cause you to win the game or lose the game. If you can meet those conditions it doesn’t matter that your strategy is shut down. Approach of the Second Sun is an excellent example of this sort of strategy. Door to Nothingness can be difficult to pull off but in a five color deck it can remove a player who is keeping you from winning. If you do not have the appropriate card removal, then player removal works just as well.   


As you play more and more games of commander eventually you will find yourself in a situation where you need a card and have the card in hand. Often it will be an alternate win condition sort of card. When you are able to play it and win the game if becomes one of the more memorable games of commander that you play. These become the epic games that people remember that will become the topic of discussion or some fun smack talk among friends. So when you build your commander deck, don’t forget to pack in the alternate win cons.